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Ukraine: We must re-arm fast


DURING the first Cold War, the West relied for many years on a doctrine of deterrence known as ‘Flexible Response’. This involved the use of a wide range of diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic tools (the DIME), to deter or defeat an enemy, and it first appeared in US General Maxwell Taylor’s book The Uncertain Trumpet, in 1960, replacing the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Immediately after assuming the US presidency in 1961, even as MAD reached its fullness, John F. Kennedy instructed his advisers to begin drafting a new strategy based on the belief that the United States should adopt this policy. Flexible Response gave Nato the ability to meet any hostile act with a proportional response. It also, however, required Kennedy to enhance deterrence through the modernisation of the US missile arsenal, and to increase conventional forces. 

The response by Western governments to the invasion of Ukraine is built on this doctrine: a few economic sanctions when Russian troops went into the Donbas, more today and tomorrow following the main invasion of Ukraine. Will it make Putin back off? Not in the short term. He has already taken account of this and is almost certainly counting on western disunity: the Germans need his gas, the Belgians want his diamonds, the Italians want to export luxury goods and so on – everyone will want an opt-out. For Putin, too, the price of going big in Ukraine is the same as going small – so why would he not invade the whole country? Whether he can then hold it is another matter – but perhaps he thinks he can create a satellite like Belarus. On the other hand, again, invading Ukraine might re-ignite opposition to the ruling party in Belarus, which has also taken part in the aggression. Whatever, Putin also knows that he will face no UN-backed sanction, because, quite simply, he can veto it in the Security Council.

Sanctions could work in the medium to long term just as the Reagan-Thatcher strategy of overheating the Soviet economy worked. But this worked in the context of a combination of measures. Blockade to deny the enemy’s machinery the fuel and lubricants needed to keep it going along with huge defence spending to overheat that machinery to melting point.

Sanctions are the modern equivalent of blockade – but that blockade must be total. No exports to Russia, no imports from her. Denial of strategic materials and commodities, seizure of assets, property and every red cent of Russian money there is in the West – the whole enchilada. But we in the West must understand that we are back in two Cold Wars – one with China and one with Russia – and actually, we have been since at least 2014.

If we are indeed back there, then the second part of Flexible Response has to be actively pursued: the rebuilding of a fully capable, and therefore credible, deterrent. This means nuclear weapons of course, and to be flexible it must also embrace conventional forces. If we do not do this, it is entirely possible that one or more of the Baltic states could be a Russian target. The Baltic States all have significant Russian populations which can form the basis of client groups or provide the excuse of aid to an oppressed minority; Poland looks dangerously encircled in this situation. Russian naval deployments in the Baltic Sea over the past few years betray an obvious pattern of a cordon sanitaire to impede Western intervention. Russian submarine, naval and air encroachments into British, Danish and Norwegian territorial waters and airspace have returned to Cold War levels – no doubt a precursor to an operation to fix our depleted forces prior to such an intervention. 

Even though the US Army and Air Force retain a considerable presence of some 80,000 troops in Europe – the US Army is re-forming the V Corps for this purpose – the conventional overmatch is horrible. The combined total of Nato divisions in Europe is probably around twenty, but at a low level of training, readiness and logistic sustainability, and spread from Denmark to Gibraltar and from England to Bulgaria. The Russian ground forces comprise approximately 30 combined arms divisions or division-equivalents, at least ten air defence brigades and ten missile brigades but not including the air defence divisions and corps assigned to the air defence command: 2,800 main battle tanks, 5,000 infantry fighting vehicles, 2,000 artillery pieces, 1,300 rocket systems. If the circumstances were right – the US was looking somewhere else, or Putin detected the lack of will to fight, or felt threatened – an adventure is possible with a heavy local superiority of forces. It would be over long before reinforcements could reach Europe from Britain or the US – and then what? Would there be any will in Nato to launch a counterattack?

Of course, nuclear weapons remain a vital element of the deterrence to such an adventure. But deterrence only works if it is credible. Credibility depends on the will to use such weapons and in the case of the West, a first use is unthinkable so that Russian nuclear brinkmanship is entirely possible. For this reason, credible deterrence needs to be built around strong conventional forces. 

In Britain, as everywhere else in Europe, we must re-arm FAST. We must take our part in facing Russia’s 30+ combat divisions, 2,800 tanks, 5,000 infantry fighting vehicles, 2,000 guns, 1,300 rocket systems and all the rest of Putin’s gear. The last defence review which cut 10,000 men from the Army, reduced the fleet of main battle tanks to fewer than 200, and cast aside the entire Warrior armoured vehicle fleet, leaving us with no armoured infantry capability must be halted, and reversed. We cannot put even a single armoured division into the field for a serious war, and if we tried, the troops would be equipped with vehicles between 30 and 60 years old, outgunned and obsolescent, lacking in air defence and without the supplies of spare parts and ammunition needed to keep it in the field.

Our Air Force similarly is down to 15 squadrons – only 170 combat aircraft as against nearly 800 Russian and with no ground-based air defence; our Navy has closed in on aircraft carriers when it needs cruisers, frigates, destroyers, inshore small craft in large numbers, and submarines. Do we need aircraft carriers? Maybe – but we live on a very large aircraft carrier parked off the European coast. 

There is no escaping the fact that armed forces are an essential attribute of sovereignty, part of what makes a country a country. They define how allies and enemies alike treat you. Our armed forces will be so small that no one, friend or foe, will take us seriously. In the depths of the last Cold War, we spent more than 5 per cent of our GDP on defence: today it is said to be 2 per cent, but that disguises the fact that, unlike last time, the defence budget has to pay for the nuclear deterrent as well as service pensions.

There is also the issue of forward basing as a demonstration of solidarity with allies and a signal to the enemy that we mean business. Leaving Germany was a huge mistake and Cameron continued with it even after the Russian invasion of the Crimea, when he could have halted it: another master stroke by a Prime Minister distinguished for ineptitude even among a cast which includes Blair, May and Johnson. This means a permanent presence once more in Europe – not this time in Germany, but in Poland, the Baltics and Hungary. The Army also needs adequate logistics and measures for rapid deployment using the European rail network starting at the Channel tunnel, as our logistic sustainability, built on the nonsense of just enough, just in time instead of on redundancy, is paper thin. The great ordnance depots here and on the continent must be re-opened and refilled.

The Navy and Air Force must be increased to be able to secure our airspace and territorial waters – and our lines of communication. We certainly also face the threat of cyber-attack, and the money spent here under the last review will be well spent. The Army needs to be restored to a corps of at least three divisions, two of them properly armoured – that is, with six tank battalions per division – with supporting artillery, air defence, armed helicopters and reconnaissance capabilities, and backed up by a tactical air force to provide air cover and ground attack in the enemy’s depth. With air superiority, most things are possible. Without it, not much can succeed. 

To rebuild such a force will take time, effort and money – and a new structure to procure the right equipment quickly. The current system is utterly broken and now is the time to get rid of it. Do not tell me, or anyone else, that we cannot afford it, because governments can always find money when they have to, or want to: £14billion wasted on overseas aid every year; £9.3million for a Downing Street ‘situation centre’ which merely duplicates the Permanent Joint Headquarters; huge sums spent on a ‘Space Command’ (reaching for the stars when we cannot control our airspace); the equivalent of THREE TIMES our current defence budget wasted on Covid trick-or-treat that never worked; protective clothing that was either defective or bought to line the pockets of political cronies, and business grants and ‘loans’ that will never be recovered and could have been avoided without the wickedness of lockdowns – but that is another story.

Of course, all this must be in the context of a united effort by Nato, led by the US. Putin must understand without any possibility of doubt that Article 5 stands and that an attack on any member state, no matter how small, will be met by a response from all. Putin’s real, long-term aim remains the fracturing or destruction of Nato – here is the chance to deny him that objective for ever.

And if we do not do it? Putin will simply do it again, and again, and again. We will then be faced with either surrender, or back to MAD: threatening a nuclear war which would in all probability never happen because the consequences are too dire. Not only will Putin be emboldened, but so too will China – with enormous consequences for Taiwan, for South Asia and, through cyberspace, for us all.

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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